The mission of state historical societies is to preserve the past for future generations. But in the face of deep budget cuts, many historical societies are fighting to preserve their own futures.
Facing cuts of 10, 15 and even 20 percent, historical societies in many states are planning layoffs, reducing visiting hours at historical sites and libraries, and eliminating educational programs.
"It's just a very serious situation and it goes right to the core of what our mission is," said Lory Sutton, spokesperson for the Minnesota Historical Society. Founded in 1849, her society is nine years older than the state itself and is widely regarded as a leader among state historical societies. But that hasn't spared it from the budget axe.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed budget would cut the society's funding, which amounted to $26 million in fiscal 2003, by 15 percent next year. The state Senate recently voted to hold funding steady, while the House moved to increase Pawlenty's proposed cut to 18 percent. Lawmakers cut the society's budget by $1.1 million this year.
Sutton said a 15 percent next year would force the society to lay off 200 people, one third of its workforce, close some historical sites and severely curtail the acquisition of new historical collections. Among historic sites that could be targeted is the mansion of James J. Hill, a 19th century Midwest railroad tycoon.
"Look at what happened recently at the museum in Iraq, with all of the treasures lost so suddenly. Well, we have our treasures too here in Minnesota, and they can be lost little bit by little bit, just by eking away at solid programs that have been put in place to make sure that we maintain our state's history," Sutton said.
The situation in Minnesota is not unique. At least 14 other states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Wisconsin, are also planning to cut agencies and programs responsible for preserving state history, the National Trust for Historic Preservation said. The trust is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that provides education and advocacy to save diverse historic places.
Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, said funding for historical preservation is well below one percent of total state spending, making it one of state government's smallest programs. As a result, even cutting it entirely would do little to ease state budget deficits.
Nonetheless, Pattison said that with most states involved in a top-to-bottom search for savings, many are rethinking even small programs. "How do we approach all these functions? Are they just things we'll do less of? Will we do more private partnerships?"
Regardless of how states answer these questions, one thing is clear: state historical societies often have a tougher time holding on to state funding than do other agencies and programs. There are two main reasons: The first is that many historical societies have access to other sources of revenue, such as museum entrance fees and private donations, unavailable to other state agencies; the second is that cuts to state historical societies tend to have a more muted impact than do cuts to healthcare or education.
"[I]f you cut your historical society no one's going to die. And there really are other programs where if they are cut significantly people will die. There's a tradeoff that has to be made there," said David Haury, associate director of the Kansas State Historical Society.
Still, Haury said his agency is working hard to preserve its funding. "We feel cultural agencies are an important part of what the state does. Plus we're an absolutely miniscule part of the overall state budget, which is just over $4 billion. We're $5.5 million or less. . . We think that's not too much to spend on history," said Haury.
Current year budget cuts in Kansas have reduced the historical society's staffing level by 28 workers, from 137 to 109, said Haury. Thirteen of these positions were eliminated through layoffs; the rest were open positions left unfilled.
The result is reduced educational and museum programming and a loss of half the society's custodians. In addition, the society has drastically reduced operations at two state historic sites: Grinter Place, a 19th century home overlooking the Kansas River, and Mine Creek Battlefield, site of the Civil War's only major battle in Kansas.